Archaeological research on past land use sheds light on future climate change - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Archaeological research on past land use sheds light on future climate change

Professor of Anthropology Thomas Foster’s archaeological research is helping to refine global climate change models by mapping human land use for the entire globe over the last 10,000 years. After five years of vigorous investigations, the work of Foster and an international cadre of scientists — archaeologists, historians, geographers, paleoecologists and modelers — has been published in PLOS ONE, a prestigious peer-reviewed open access scientific journal.

Man with grey hair, smiling, wearing a purple open-collar shirt and a cream-colored blazer
Thomas Foster

“Mapping past human land use using archaeological data: A new classification for global land use synthesis and data harmonization” presents a simple, hierarchical classification of land use systems designed to be used with archaeological and historical data at a global scale. It also offers a schema of codes that identify land-use practices common to a range of systems. Both elements are implemented in a geospatial database.

This publication arose out of the work Foster and his colleagues have been conducting as part of a project called LandCover6k. The goal of this project is to produce new datasets of climate-induced natural vegetation change (NVC) and anthropogenic land-cover change (ALCC) for climate modeling using archaeological data to help improve climate change models. (Anthropogenic is a term used to characterize the impact on nature of humans or their activities, and is often found in discussions of pollution and environmental degradation.)

The publication of “Mapping past human land use using archaeological data” has caught the media’s eye. Here’s a selected list of the coverage thus far: Penn Today, AzoCleantech and Science Daily.

A major impetus for the team’s work was, Foster explained, the fact that “there are existing climate change models for the earth that are highly inaccurate about human land use.” To correct these misconstruals, “dozens of scientists from all around the world are pulling from local expertise to create maps of human land and trying to answer questions of how, when and what type of land use did humans engage in.”

map of the eastern half of North America showing areas of hunter-gatherers and first cultivated plants circa 2000 BCWhile this research will improve our understanding of past interactions between land cover and climate, perhaps even more importantly it could also help humanity see the effect of land-use change on the planet’s climate in the future. With that in mind, Foster and his team hope their research can be used to influence governments’ climate change policies.

Paleo sciences, modern problems

Foster’s involvement in this project began in 2015 when he saw a posting seeking more researchers to contribute. “I knew at once this would be a great project to get involved with,” said Foster. “It was global, interdisciplinary, and about applying paleo sciences to modern problems, which happens to be the topic of my third book, Viewing the Future in the Past.” Sensing a great professional fit, Foster quickly got involved.

Foster’s career as an anthropologist has been centered on understanding humans’ effects on the environment, with a particular on the Americas. He brought this expertise to the LandCover6K project and has taken the lead on North American land-use research for the team. Until the COVID-19 pandemic halted nearly all international travel, the team met all around the world.

A map of the eastern half of North America showing areas of subsistence land use in AD 1500According to Foster, his participation in the project would not be possible without the support of The University of Tulsa, both with research and travel grants. In return, Foster has brought a lot of knowledge back to the classroom: “My students at TU are largely why I decided to participate in the project. I teach about human effects on the environment at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and this project has helped by working allowing me to work one on one with graduate students in the lab learning methods as well as results.”

Even upon publication, the work is far from finished for Foster and his team. Instead, he says, the publication will be the latest product from a long-term project that is designed to improve global climate change models.

Foster is traveling down an exciting, research-heavy road. And someday, he believes, his findings could make a very real impact on daily lives and shape the way humans think about the environment.

Are you fascinated by diverse cultures and the lives of people past and present? If so, learn more about the remarkable explorations you can undertake while studying anthropology at TU.